Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Saving Righteousness of God (ch. 7)

In chapter 7, Dr. Bird tackles one of the most contentious issues in Pauline studies; the relationship between works and justification. As a card-carrying Protestant, this topic has been particularly vexatious for me. I firmly believe that justification is by faith, and not by works of the law. Yet, Paul says things like, "the doers of law shall be justified" (Rom 2:13). How do we reconcile Paul's statements regarding justification by faith and judgment according to works? This is the question our author addresses in this chapter, as he offers his interpretation of Romans 2 - a crux interpretum for understanding the relationship between justification and works.

Christians have been debating this passage since Augustine. Moreover, Jews in the Second Temple period struggled to resolve the tension between faith and works. There are therefore many well-rehearsed arguments in this discussion. As for Romans 2, there are 5 major interpretative options.

(1) Some scholars (e.g. Sanders and Raisanen) think that Paul is inconsistent when he says that the doers of the law will be justified. This camp posiits that Romans 2 is actually in conflict with Romans 3 and other passages in the Pauline corpus.

(2) Other scholars think that Romans 2 is hypothetical. Paul is saying that there is a valid promise to those who do good; namely, God will justify them in accordance with their obedience. However, Paul goes on to state in Romans 3:20 that no human will be justified by works of the law. No human has the requisite ability to be justified via obedience. Paul is thus setting up a hypothetical possibility which he proceeds to knock down.

(3) Other scholars contend that Paul is speaking of non-Christian Jews and Gentiles who respond to the revelation they have received from God. Some Jews/Gentiles in this group are condemned because they do not respond accordingly. Others, however, are justified in virtue of their obedient response to God's revelation.

(4) Yet another group of scholars believes that Paul is only speaking of God's impartiality in Romans 2. God will impartially judge Jews and Gentiles alike, though the outcome will be entirely negative for both groups.

(5) A final collection of scholars understand Paul as speaking of fidelity in Romans 2. Those who do the law persevere in their faith (and thus maintain their covenant status), while those who fail to do so apostasize.

How do we solve this interpretative conundrum? Bird offers 7 criteria which need to be met for an interpretation of Romans 2 to be satisfactory...

(1) The meaning of judgment according to works in second-temple Judaism and the degree to which it is a foil for Paul's own views.
(2) The context of Rom 1:18-3:20 which functions chiefly as a negative indictment of Jews and Gentiles.
(3) The emphasis upon the impartiality of God and the false presumption of Jews in their elect status in Rom 2:1-29.
(4) The outcomes espoused in Rom 2:12-16 are categories of justification and condemnation respectively.
(5) The identity of the persons described in Rom 2:1-16 and in Rom 2:25-29.
(6) The identity of the law in Rom 2:15, 25.
(7) The relationship between faith and obedience as the basis of justification in Pauline theology as a whole.

Bird concludes that the "Christian reading" most adequately meets these criteria. That is, "Paul is speaking of Gentile Christians who fulfill the Torah through fiath in Christ and life in the Spirit" (166). This view has gained popularity of late, receiving support from N.T. Wright and C.E.B. Cranfield.

While I don't necessarily agree with Bird's take on this passage, I appreciate that he reiterates the importance of Christology for understanding final justification. When you read Wright, you sometimes get the impression that Paul differs from Judaism on eschatological justification only insofar as he thinks believers are uniquely empowered (by the Spirit) to live an obedient life. According to this view, believers will be judged and justified on the basis of the whole life lived, but the Spirit uniquely empowers obedience. Therefore, this isn't simply works-righteousness. Bird is right to say that our final justification has come into the present in the death and resurrection of Christ. We must not move final justification away from the realm of Christology. God's pronouncement regarding believers at the final judgment will be a revelation of the verdict that he executed in the cross/resurrection of Christ.

Personally, I've waffled between the hypothetical interpretation and the one Bird is espousing. I'm sympathetic to his position, but here's my main hesitation regarding it... Paul structures 1:18-3:20 with a view towards the conclusion he is going to arrive at in 3:19-20. The argument reaches its crescendo when Paul asserts that no human being will be justified at the final judgment by works of the law. I think it's beyond dispute that "works of the law" include moral requirements binding for Jews and Gentiles alike. Now, it's possible that Paul introduces a theme in Romans
2 that he will expound upon later - i.e. the fact that Christians fulfill the law - but it seems to obfuscate his argument. If the Christian reading is correct, Paul says these things sequentially...(1) Gentile Christians will be justified in accordance to their obedience to the law (2:12-16, 25-29), (2) all Greeks and Jews are under sin (3:9), and (3) no one will be justified by works of the law (3:20). This seems a tad muddled. Moreover, it's difficult for me to envisage Paul using the elliptical term "Gentiles" as a reference to Christians in 2:12-16, and then use a very similar term (i.e. "Greeks") in 3:9 in reference to non-Christians. For these reasons, I currently lean away from the Christian reading. However, I'm willing definitely willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Dr. Bird, how would you respond to the argument that the Christian reading of Romans 2 obfuscates Paul's major point?


Michael F. Bird said...

Keep in mind that I agree partly with your premise about reading Rom. 2.13-16 in light of 3.20! Even so:

(1) The rhetorical function of Romans 2 is to shame Paul's Jewish interlocutor on the basis of the fact that there are Gentiles who do the law better than you let and they will be justified. Paul's argument is not strictly linear but circles back on itself somewhat and he is giving hints of what the coming AD period looks like.
(2) If you read 2.13-16 in light of 2.25-29, then you've got a pretty good argument that the Gentiles in 2.13-16 HAVE to be Christian Gentiles.
(3) There is a difference between pursuing works of law as a means to righteousness (e.g. 9.33-10.4) and fulfilling the law through a Spirit-driven life (8.1-13). In fact, by your own logic, if 2.13-16 contradicts 3.20, then by necessity so does 8.4 !!!
(4) The justification in 2.13-16 cannot be hypothetical because (a) Paul also speaks of justification and condemnation - is condemnation purely hypothetical too? - and it is part of his gospel. Does the gospel include the theory that we can be hypothetically justified by works or is that God justifies those who by faith fulfil the law through faith in Christ and life in the Spirit?

Jeffrey said...

Thanks for the response Dr. Bird,

1. I think that the point about rhetoric adds weight to your position. Paul could conceivably be throwing in all sorts of things to show the guilt of his interlocutor.
2. I'm still getting hung up on the clarity issue.
3. I don't think that my reading of 2:13-16 is necessarily in tension with Romans 8:4. Paul says the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in believers. He doesn't say that
the basis of the believer's justification at the final judgment will be Spirit-empowered obedience to the law.

You've given me much to chew on!